Libya refugee exodus continues

Concerns persist over thousands of African migrants who, afraid of being targetted, remain trapped in the country.

refugees - libya

Thousands of people continue to flee the violence in Libya, with most refugees attempting to enter neighbouring Tunisia or Egypt, though there are pressing concerns regarding African migrants who remain trapped in the country, unable to leave for fear of being attacked by both the government and the opposition.

Officials say tens of thousands of people remain just inside Libya’s borders, awaiting evacuation, safe passage or the granting of asylum, while thousands more have so far not attempted to leave their homes for fear of their own safety.

International Organisation for Migration officials say almost 200,000 people have fled Libya since violence began several weeks ago, headed towards neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia and Niger.


Europe, the United States and the United Nations have announced plans to donate $30 million in humanitarian aid for refugees. Barack Obama, the US president, has also approved the use of US military aircraft and civilian flights to evacuate people from Libya.

Flights from the US’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany are currently being prepared, and flights could leave as early as Friday, senior US defence officials told the Associated Press news agency, on condition of anonymity.

Egyptians evacuated

Obama announced on Thursday that US military aircraft would play a humanitarian role by helping Egyptians who had fled the chaos in Libya and become stranded in Tunisia. The planes are to fly them from Tunisia back to Egypt. The Pentagon has also ordered two Navy warships into the Mediterranean.

On Thursday, migration officials said they evacuated 5,500 foreign workers from the eastern opposition stronghold of Benghazi, which is Libya’s second largest city. Nine flights provided by Britain and the UN refugee agency also flew 1,700 people from Djerba, in Tunisia, to Cairo.

France has also lent two planes to that effort, which will allow another 2,250 stranded Egyptians to return home over the next five days.

In Benghazi, the first people to be airlifted out were about 200 women, children and medical patients. Those waiting to be evacuated were mostly from Bangladesh, India and Sudan, with some citizens of Syria and Ghana also present.

Migration officials said many refugees were afraid of being shot in the fighting, and they did not know that there was help waiting at the Egyptian border. Many of them were also in Libya illegally, making land border crossings more difficult.

Libyan Red Crescent aides as well as international immigration officials are escorting groups of people in the country’s east to the Egyptian border at Salloum. About 3,000 people are waiting at Salloum for ships to take them to the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

About 3,000 Bangladeshis and 1,000 northern Sudanese, however, remain trapped in the no-man’s land between Libya and Egypt. Emergency workers were trying to supply them with food, water and medicine.

Migration officials in Geneva said one African worker told them that between 6,000 and 10,000 foreign labourers and families were trapped in Khomees. The group included West Africans, Chinese and Filipinos.

Officials said food supplies were low, illness was spreading and fear of reprisals against foreigners were rife.

Thousands head to Tunisia

Tens of thousands of refugees have also headed to the Tunisian border town of Ras Adjir, where aid agencies and the Tunisian army have set up a camp to receive them. People have complained, however, that the camp is overwhelmed, facing a shortage of supplies and a lack of adequate sanitation facilities.

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Many slept on blankets on the ground, without shelter.

“We are afraid that if we stay here for a long time many people will die, because we do not have showers, and we are also getting sick,” Arif Rahman, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi who worked in Libya as a carpenter, said.

About 12,000 people have been crossing the Tunisian border every day this week, and in total 20,000-30,000 refugees are currently in Ras Adjir, according to Monje Slim of the Tunisian Red Crescent. In total, about 95,000 people have entered Tunisia from Libya in the last ten days.

“The biggest problem is the logistics. It’s where to put people, where to put camps and also the medical concerns,” said Slim, adding that the camp had already seen an outbreak of skin diseases and at least 15 cases of eye infections.

As with the Egyptian borders, tens of thousands remain just inside Libya, hoping to make it across to the relative safety of Tunisia.

James Bays, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the Tunisian border town of Jarjiz, said there are growing concerns that many people from West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa were too afraid to make the border crossing.

“The fact of the matter is that today we’re not seeing West Africans, we’re not seeing sub-Saharan Africans coming out of the borders,” Jean-Phillipe Chauzy, with the International Organisation for Migration, told Al Jazeera.

He said people from those countries were too afraid to leave their homes, for fear of either being attacked by anti-government protesters for being “mercenaries”, or of being detained by pro-Gaddafi forces. Some Ghanaians in Jarjiz told Al Jazeera that they had witnessed African migrants being forced by pro-Gaddafi forces to take up arms and fight for the government.

“We’re in touch with literally hundreds of refugees who say they are feeling absolutely trapped in Libya. They say that they are feeling hunted, they are feeling targetted. But from what the refugees have been telling us, they’re saying that all Africans from sub-Saharan Africa are very much at risk at the moment,” Sybella Wilkes, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency , told Al Jazeera.

She also said the UN had received several accounts of refugees from these areas being attacked and indeed killed.

“We’ve already established a camp with a capacity for 10,000 people. We’re bringing in more tents in the next 24-48 hours, we hope that the capacity of that camp will double. But it is a huge challenge. It’s very cold at night, and we are hearing that particularly the water and sanitation situation is very critical, so it is imperative that people are helped to get home as quickly as possible,” she said.

Two ambulances hit

Meanwhile, in the coastal Libyan town of Misurata, the International Red Cross said that two ambulances came under fire, wounding two people and destroying one of the vehicles.

“Credible reports indicate that two Libyan Red Crescent ambulances were shot at today [Thursday] in Misurata, west of Benghazi, resulting in two volunteers being injured and one of the ambulances being completely burnt,” the
International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.

“Red Crescent and Red Cross staff must be respected and allowed to carry out their life-saving work in safety,” said Simon Brooks, head of the ICRC team in Benghazi.

It was unclear who carried out the attack on the ambulances.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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